Asking the Wrong Questions: Life, Adventure, and Risk

When I heard about the SpaceShipTwo accident, which happened to occur on this past Halloween, the first thing I did was go hug a test pilot.  I was in shock - thankfully these sorts of accidents are rare - and terribly saddened by the loss of a brave and talented life.  The details were still fuzzy, but a tragedy it certainly was.  I was also overcome with empathy for the team that was working with the program: I have watched something that I helped build and felt responsibility for leave the runway with a person that I know and admire on board.  I am grateful that I have watched an equal number of safe landings, but not naive enough to think that there are any such guarantees.

As coverage of the accident spread, there were of course as many reactions published as there were photos showing wreckage in the Mojave.  Some of them were crass, joking about who “should of been on board”, some were blindly supportive of the Virgin Galactic effort, some were harshly critical of that effort at large.  One piece claimed that “Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For” saying that Mike Alsbury didn’t die for a lofty vision of space exploration, but rather for a “luxury service provider.” To me, these all fall flat.

It’s not for us to answer the question of what is “worth dying for” when it comes to anyone but ourselves.  And even that question isn’t right.  It’s not about whether it’s worth a life; it’s about what is worth risking a life.  Every action has potential consequences; so does every inaction.  Each person must ask themselves, “is having this experience worth the possibility, however large or small I believe it to be, that it could be my last?” It’s a risk analysis of the most personal nature.  It’s one that I know every test pilot answers for themselves each time they get into whatever it is they are going to fly, be it cutting-edge spaceship or slightly modified passenger jet.  If the answer is no, they don’t strap in.

It’s also a question that we implicitly answer every time we get into a car or cross the street or get into an airplane.  Fortunately for us, others have already done the work to reduce the chance of dying doing those things to a level that we don’t worry about.  In fact, people died laying the roads, building the bridges (11 of them died building the Golden Gate), and testing the planes (in the 1950s test pilots were being killed at the rate of about one per week) that we so casually use today.

But back to space travel.  I believe both Mike Alsbury and Pete Siebold made a conscious decision that the risk that the flight on Friday October 31, 2014 could be their last was worth the benefit, both to themselves and to the world at large.

Are we really going to tell them that they were wrong?  Space tourism may start as a “luxury service”, but so did commercial air travel.  The first scheduled commercial flight occurred in 1914, lasted 23 minutes, and cost over $9,300 for its single passenger adjusted to 2014 dollars.  If talented people choose to dedicate their time and talent to taking the first step towards making space travel as accessible as a flight from JFK to LAX, who are we to tell them it’s not worth it?  I don’t believe it is our place to pass judgement on someone else’s assessment of the risk/reward equation for an experience of a lifetime or fulfilling a deep sense of purpose and duty.

We won’t know until we have the benefit of hindsight if this is the best or most efficient or safest or most noble or fastest path to the stars, but it is the path that is currently being pursued.  Others are welcome to chart their own course.  Blazing new trails is hard work.

Even the most public of adventure is intensely personal.  Life lived without risk is not truly lived.  We should all be so fortunate as to find something that inspires us to the point of gratefully taking a serious - even life threatening -  risk, and we should support those brave individuals that make that decision every day.  We honor Mike Alsbury, and every person who has lost their life in the process of exploration and creation, not by criticizing the cause to which they were willing to risk everything, but by finding our own personal passion and pursuing it - not blindly or blithely, but deliberately and with dedication.

Ad astra per aspera.